A GREAT SPEECH & ITS CRITICS
12:00 AM, Sep 2, 1996 • By NORMAN PODHORETZ
With the sole exception of Ted Koppel of Nightline, who flatly characterized it as "a great speech," I could find no other commentator who had the slightest inkling of its extraordinary quality. No one went as far as Chris Matthews would the next morning on ABC ("It was one of the worst speeches I ever heard in my life"). But Mark Shields of PBS came close: "It was too long a speech, it was not a disciplined speech, it was a compendium, it was a laundry list, it had too much in the middle." And to the ears of ABC's Michel McQueen, Dole sounded like a "preachy grandfather."
Even those who reacted more or less favorably were grudging or patronizing. "It was an effective speech, [but] I've heard more eloquent speeches," declared Jeff Greenfield of ABC. "As these things go, it was a fairly well- delivered political speech," opined Bob Schieffer of CBS. "This was a good speech. It wasn't a great speech," pronounced the pundit Kevin Phillips, also on CBS.
Nor was this stingy response confined to liberals. The conservative commentators (not just faux-conservatives like Phillips, but real ones) were also notably lacking in enthusiasm even when dispensing praise. On PBS the Wall Street Journal's Paul Gigot called the speech "successful, by and large." Also on PBS, William Kristol, the editor and publisher of THE WEEKLY STANDARD, fretted that "it was not forward-looking" (though further reflection later produced an editorial in this magazine acknowledging that " Bob Dole spoke many passages of unusual beauty and power"). To Robert Novak of CNN it was "a pretty good speech," while the New York Times columnist William Satire, offering on PBS to put in a few good words for Dole's performance, could come up with nothing better than "good, solid, thematic."
To be sure, all these conservative commentators had been rough on Dole throughout the primary season, and a residual trace of their pessimism over his chances of unseating Bill Clinton, combined with their uncertainty as to whether the speech would increase or do further damage to those chances, might have blinded them to what was happening before their very eyes. And on the other side, the notorious liberal bias of the media pundits may have been at work, presenting itself in the usual fashion as objective reporting and disinterested critical judgment.
Yet whatever political animus may or may not have been driving the commentators, those two amazing facts remain. On the night of August 15 in San Diego, Bob Dole, of all people, raised our political discourse to a literary level higher than it has ever reached before in the living memory even of those of us who share with him "the gracious compensations of age." And for thus enhancing and indeed ennobling our public life with words of exceptional loveliness and images of great richness and coherence, Dole was rewarded with a philistine indifference that shames us as a nation and that tells us something more disheartening about the corruption of taste and the erosion of standards in America than all the lowest and most vulgar excrescences of pop culture put together.
Norman Podhoretz, for 35 years the editor of Commentary, is a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute.